1. “What then will this child be?”
When John was born, neighbors were amazed and they asked: “What then will this child be?” People considered John a prophet. Jesus also considered him to be one. This makes Herod afraid to kill him (Mt. 14: 5). So, when Jesus came baptizing people and performing miracles, Herod thought that John whom he beheaded came to life.
Prophets have many roles – interpreter of dreams, mediator, interpreting omens, foretelling the future and many others. Most common is to take the kings and rulers of their times to task, to deliver God’s message to them which their absolute powers might have drowned: to read the sings of the times, to correct and admonish, to expose injustice, to warn people of danger, to announce God’s judgment. Because their lives are antithetical to power, prophets are marginal beings – against the grain, at the fringes of society, with the downtrodden. To express this liminality, the Bible speaks of John wearing camel’s hair or eating locusts and wild honey. These strange yet charismatic figures find themselves at the margins of power to be able to speak where power was misused and abused both within religion and politics.
Prophets arose in Israel during the time of their kings. Most of them were initially unwilling yet they also personally felt God’s calling. Aside from this deep personal experience, they were called to do a social task: to admonish the kings of their excesses. In the Old Testament, they castigate the ruler mainly for two great sins – idolatrous worship and injustice perpetrated against the poor and the weak.
The stories of the prophets are well known: Nathan against David, Hadad against Solomon, Amos against Jeroboam, Elijah against Jezebel, Isaiah against Hezekiah, and in the more recent times, John the Baptist against Herod.
Question: “What then will this child be?” Answer: An uncompromising prophet! He minced no words. He spoke truth to power.
To the multitude: “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Mt. 3: 7)
To the Pharisees: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt. 3: 9)
To Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6: 18)
To the multitudes: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” (Lk. 3: 11)
To the tax collectors: “Collect no more than is appointed you.” (Lk. 3: 13)
To the soldiers: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation and be content with your wages.” (Lk. 3: 14)
2. “Where have all the prophets gone?”
Was there a time in Israel when the prophets were nowhere to be found?
Psalm 74 laments: “We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long” (Ps. 74: 9).
“Where have all the prophets” gone is a phrase I adapted from an old famous song “Where have all the flowers gone” composed by Pete Seeger in 1955 later made more popular by Peter, Paul and Mary, a song dear to the heart of the 1960s generation. It is a sad antiwar song that talks about the numbing monotonous cycle of violence – from looking for the flowers that were taken by young girls who married the young men, who became soldiers, and now lying in their graves where flowers are laid to die as well. No one spoke up against the violence. All you have left are lonely graveyards covered with decaying flowers.
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers, every one.
When will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?
In recent times in the Philippines, many people think that the prophets have also gone into hiding. People are killed and no one was speaking up for them. All we are left with are lonely graveyards. After burying them, their families fled in silence and fear. Some bodies were not even retrieved by their loved ones because they do not know where to find them, or they could not afford to pay. No graves or tombstones or floweres can be seen. Some were thrown unknown into the sea.
In Payatas, grieving families did not have the consolation of a visit of their fellow Christian neighbors during the wake of their loved ones. It must be doubly painful when one’s friends whom you expected to stand up for you do not come to condole or even to ask how it happened. When we first gathered the families of victims and asked how we could be of help, the widows replied, “Can we have a space to share our pains and what we are going through? No one in our neighborhood asked or listened.”
Even the traditional community prayer leaders who were supposed to come each night to pray the nine-day novena for dead were noticeably absent. It is painful that the people who are supposed to give us the consolation of prayer as our direct link to God in these difficult moments are not there. When we asked the prayer leaders why, they said they were afraid to be caught in the crossfire as the police might come back – because it did happen in other wakes earlier.
Many parish priests were also at a loss. When victims come to their doorsteps for help, they did not know how to respond. Some victims went to them to tell their stories; the pastor says he has no program for it. Their homilies were also quiet on this. I am not yet referring to some who are totally convinced that the “war on drug” is the right thing to do.
Some bishops are vocal but many are also not there. The sheep are being slaughtered and some shepherds are nowhere to be found. Because of this painful absence of supposed to be prophets in our times, the victims’ families continue to hide and flee in fear. Many of them have fled. But they continue to grieve alone, in silence, in pain, in the dark.
And the rest of us Christians – around 80% of us – who were supposed to stand up to proclaim God’s justice and solidarity with the victims are nowhere to be found too. We are either convinced that the poor shall die because they are the “pests of society”, or we are cowed in fear for our own security or just too numb not to mind that people are being killed – more than 23,000 of them and counting.
I remember a quotation from the work of the post-Holocaust theologian, Johann Baptist Metz:
Catastrophes are reported on the radio in between pieces of music. The music continues to play, like the audible passage of time that moves forward inexorably and can be held back by nothing. As Brecht has said: ‘When crime is committed, just as the rain falls, no one cries: Halt!
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St. Vincent School of Theology